the new york times

march 12, 2006
children's books

young adult fiction: wild things

left, photo by roger moenks and laurent alfierri; cover design by jennifer blanc; 
  right, cover photo by carolyn veith krienke; cover design by amy greenspan
left, photo by roger moenks and laurent alfierri; cover design by jennifer blanc; right, cover photo by carolyn veith krienke; cover design by amy greenspan

by naomi wolf

these books look cute. they come in matched paperback sets with catchy titles, and stay for weeks on the children's books best-seller list. they carry no rating or recommended age range on the cover, but their intended audience -- teenage girls -- can't be in doubt. they feature sleek, conventionally beautiful girls lounging, getting in or out of limos, laughing and striking poses. any parent -- including me -- might put them in the barnes & noble basket without a second glance.

cover design by marci senders.  click for a larger view. yet if that parent opened one, he or she might be in for a surprise. the "gossip girl," "a-list" and "clique" series -- the most successful in a crowded field of au pairs, it girls and other copycat series -- represent a new kind of young adult fiction, and feature a different kind of heroine. in these novels, which have dominated the field of popular girls' fiction in recent years, carol gilligan's question about whether girls can have "a different voice" has been answered -- in a scary way.

in lisi harrison's "clique" novels, set in suburban westchester, the characters are 12 and 13 years old, but there are no girlish identity crises, no submissiveness to parents or anyone else. these girls are empowered. but they are empowered to hire party planners, humiliate the "sluts" in their classes (" 'i'm sorry, i'm having a hard time understanding what you're saying,' massie snapped. 'i don't speak slut' ") and draw up a petition calling for the cafeteria ladies serving their lunch to get manicures.

the "clique" novels are all about status. but sex saturates the "gossip girl" books, by cecily von ziegesar, which are about 17- and 18-year-old private school girls in manhattan. this is not the frank sexual exploration found in a judy blume novel, but teenage sexuality via juicy couture, blasi? 1/2 and entirely commodified. in "nothing can keep us together," nate has sex with serena in a bergdorf's dressing room: "nate was practically bursting as he followed serena. . . . he grabbed her camisole and yanked it away from her body, ripping it entirely in half. . . . 'remember when we were in the tub at my house, the summer before 10th grade?' . . . 'yes!' 'oh, yes!' . . . nate began to cry as soon as it was over. the viagra had worn off just in time."

the "a-list" novels, by zoey dean (a pseudonym for a married writing team hired by the media packager 17th street productions, which created all three series and sold them to little, brown), are spinoffs of the "gossip girl" series. now we're on the west coast, among a group of seniors from beverly hills high. here is anna, in las vegas for the weekend with her posse: "was there any bliss quite like the first five minutes in a hot tub? well, yes, actually. ben. sex with ben had been that kind of bliss. . . . would sex with scott offer that kind of bliss?" her best friend, cyn, also has feelings for scott: "she'd shed a lot of her usual wild-child ways as soon as they'd hooked up. no more stealing guys with wedding rings away from their wives just because she could. . . . no more getting wasted at parties and dirty dancing with handsome waiters . . . . no more taking e," or ecstasy, at nightclubs.

but anything can get old eventually. cyn offers anna this world-weary romantic guidance: "we used to jump each other, like, three times a night. when we went out to the movies, we'd sit by a wall and do it during the boring parts." she recommends "semi-sex" -- not oral sex, because "that is so over" -- behind a statue at moma .

unfortunately for girls, these novels reproduce the dilemma they experience all the time: they are expected to compete with pornography, but can still be labeled sluts. in "invasion of the boy snatchers," the fourth novel in the "clique" series, lisi harrison reproduces misogynist scenarios of other girls shaming and humiliating a girl who is deemed "slutty" -- nina, an exchange student from spain. when harrison writes that nina's "massive boobs jiggled," you know she is doomed to the westchester equivalent of a scarlet letter.

though "rainbow party" got all the attention last year -- that was the novel about oral sex in which the characters even sounded like porn stars: hunter, rod and rusty -- kids didn't buy it, literally. in spite of a shiny, irresistible cover showing a row of candy-colored lipsticks, it was a book more reported about than read.

but teenagers, or their parents, do buy the bad-girls books -- the "clique," "gossip girl" and "a-list" series have all sold more than a million copies. and while the tacky sex scenes in them are annoying, they aren't really the problem. the problem is a value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers. the books have a kitsch quality -- they package corruption with a cute overlay.

in the world of the "a-list" or "clique" girl, inverting austen (and alcott), the rich are right and good simply by virtue of their wealth. seventh graders have palm pilots, red coach clutches, visas and cellphones in prada messenger bags. success and failure are entirely signaled by material possessions -- specifically, by brands. you know the new girl in the "clique" novel "best friends for never" is living in social limbo when she shops at j. crew and wears keds, and her mother drives a dreaded taurus rather than a lexus. in "back in black" the group of "a-list" teenagers spends a weekend at "the palms hotel and casino"; brands are so prominent you wonder if there are product placement deals: "vanity fair always prepared giveaway baskets. . . . last year's had contained a dell portable jukebox, a bottle of angel perfume by thierry mugler and a palmone treo 600 smartphone." (the copyright page of the latest "gossip girl" book lists credits for the clothing featured on the cover: "gold sequined top -- iris singer, peach dress -- bibelot@susan greenstadt," and so on.)

in these novels, the world of wealthy parents is characteristically seen as corrupt and opportunistic -- but the kids have no problem with that. in the "a-list" novels, power is all about favors: "orlando bloom was next door with jude law, and sam knew him from a dinner party her father had hosted to raise money for the kerry campaign." as anna challenges a young would-be writer, scott, "do you think you only got published in the times because your mother called in a favor?"

the mockery the books direct toward their subjects is not the subversion of adult convention traditionally found in young adult novels. instead they scorn anyone who is pathetic enough not to fit in. in the "clique" novels, the "pretty committee," dominated by the lead bitch-goddess, massie, is made up of the cool kids of their elite girls school. they terrorize the "losers" below them in the social hierarchy: it's like "lord of the flies" set in the local mall, without the moral revulsion.

the girls move through the school in what has become, in movies like "mean girls" and "clueless," a set piece for nasty cool-girl drama: they are "striking and confident in their matching costumes . . . like a gang of sexy fembots on a mission to take over suburbia." in the classic tradition of young adult fiction, massie would be the villain, and claire, the newcomer who first appears as an l.b.r., or "loser beyond repair," would be the heroine: she is the one girl with spunk, curiosity and age-appropriate preoccupations. claire and her family live in the guesthouse of the wealthy block family; claire's mother is friends with massie's mother, but her father seems to be employed by massie's father in an uneasily dependent relationship. in jane austen or charlotte bronti? 1/2 , that economic dependency on the "great house" would signal that the heroine stands in opposition to the values of that mansion. yet claire's whole journey, in class terms, is to gravitate into the mansion. she abandons her world of innocence and integrity -- in which children respect parents, are honest and like candy -- to embrace her eventual success as one of the school's elite, lying to and manipulating parents, having contempt for teachers and humiliating social rivals.

over the course of the series, claire learns to value her own poorer but closer-knit family less than she did before. indeed, she pushes her father into greater economic dependence on the rich patrons, absorbing massie's shopping tastes and learning to disdain her mother's clothing. veronica and betty morph into mistresses of the universe, wearing underwear to school with the words "kiss it" on the rear.

since women have been writing for and about girls, the core of the tradition has been the opposition between the rebel and the popular, often wealthy antiheroine. sara crewe in frances hodgson burnett's "little princess" loses her social standing and is tormented by the school's alpha girls, but by the end of the story we see them brought low. in "little women," jo march's criticism of "ladylike" social norms is challenged by an invitation to a ball; while meg, the eldest girl, is taken in by the wealthy daughters of the house and given a makeover -- which is meant to reveal not her victory as a character but her weakness.

this tradition carried on powerfully through the 20th century. even modern remakes, like "clueless," show the popular, superficial girl undergoing a humbling and an awakening, as she begins to question her allegiance to conformity and status.

in the "clique" and "gossip girl" novels, meanwhile, every day is freaky friday. the girls try on adult values and customs as though they were going to wear them forever. the narratives offer the perks of the adult world not as escapist fantasy but in a creepily photorealistic way, just as the book jackets show real girls polished to an unreal gloss. it's not surprising that cecily von ziegesar matter-of-factly told an interviewer that she sees her books as "aspirational" (which she seemed to think was a good thing).

the great reads of adolescence have classically been critiques of the corrupt or banal adult world. it's sad if the point of reading for many girls now is no longer to take the adult world apart but to squeeze into it all the more compliantly. sex and shopping take their places on a barren stage, as though, even for teenagers, these are the only dramas left.

naomi wolf is the author, most recently, of "the treehouse: eccentric wisdom from my father on how to live, love and see."

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